Why do so many ordinary Americans not believe that climate change is real and human-caused? Here at Pacific Standard, we've long explored the personal, psychological characteristics that make Americans climate skeptics. But a new study suggests there are larger forces at play too—namely, private organizations that don't believe in climate change and want to make sure the average American voter doesn't, either.
The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, cleverly quantifies how fossil-fuel trade organizations, public relations firms, think tanks, and other groups have increasingly been able to get their anti-climate change message out to American newspapers and the president. The study doesn't directly link those organizations' activities with individuals' opinions, but, at the very least, it's clear those groups have a big voice in American culture.
Here's how the study's author, Yale University sociologist Justin Farrell, conducted his analysis:
- Farrell gathered all the "written and verbal texts" he could find that had been published by 164 climate-skeptic organizations between 1993 and 2013. The 40,785 documents included papers, press releases, webpages, transcripts from conferences, and more.
- He gathered, for the same time period, all of the climate change stories published in the New York Times, the Washington Times, and USA Today; transcripts of addresses by the president; and transcripts of speeches given on the floor of Congress.
- He obtained data from the Internal Revenue Service to find which organizations received funding from either ExxonMobil or the billionaire Koch brothers, who are famously skeptical of human activity causing global warming.
- He built a computer program that automatically compared the wording in his bank of climate-skeptic documents with the wording on climate change in American media and politics. Think of it as a global warming version of TurnItIn, the automated plagiarism checker many colleges use.
Here's what Farrell found:
- Over time, news reports and presidential speeches began to more closely resemble climate-skeptic organizations' documents. In 1993, President George H.W. Bush's addresses had a similarity score of about 0.09 with climate-skeptic organizations, while news organizations had a similarity score of about 0.14. (A score of one would have meant a perfect match.) By 2013, President Obama's addresses had a similarity score of about 0.13, and news media a score of about 0.22.
This result can seem confusing, considering Obama's recent reputation for progressive, environmentally friendly lawmaking, but keep in mind that the similarity score doesn't address whether the mentions are positive or negative. It's possible Obama quotes skeptic organizations more frequently than H.W. does, but also discounts them; the algorithm wouldn't know.
Congressional speeches' similarity scores stayed the same.
- Those organizations that received funding from ExxonMobil or the Koch family had a stronger influence on news, regardless of how much money the organizations actually received. Farrell hypothesizes the amount is not as important as "whether or not they had financial ties to corporate benefactors at all, thus signifying entry into a smaller circle of influence."
Sadly, Farrell's study doesn't answer how wording from climate-skeptic organizations bled into reporting in news articles. Do journalists often quote from press releases or skeptic spokespeople? What relationships do these organizations have with presidents? Still, Farrell's results are a reminder of how private organizations are able to influence the American mind—even, or especially, when it comes to impartial science.
"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard’s aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.